Employee sentiment toward work has experienced a seismic shift in recent years. As historic events converged during the global pandemic—leading to simultaneous social justice, health, and remote work challenges—employees reassessed their priorities, including their expectations in their careers and employers.

The result has been an increasingly contentious war for top talent. However, in this battle, the most successful organizations are the ones that leverage the changing business landscape to reassess their talent strategies, strengthen their workforce, and drive long-term profitability.

In a recent webinar, we had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion about the unique talent management opportunities that surfaced during these recent trying times—many of which continue to have a lasting impact on how organizations think and act on employee engagement. Jacinta Carter (Executive VP of Human Resources, People, and Culture at Swisher), Mary Beth DeNooyer (Chief HR Officer at Keurig Dr Pepper), Kathy Gardner (VP, Head of People Operations at Palladium Equity Partners), and Daryl Gormley (CEO at Aquamar) each shared how the events of 2020 shaped their approach to employee attraction, retention, and engagement. Here are some of the silver linings identified.

Flexible Work Environments Offer Significant Differentiation & Cost-Savings

During the pandemic, global shutdowns caused significant business disruptions that challenged existing models of work. As companies brainstormed new ways to operate, many businesses turned to remote operations—a highly flexible model that organizations were previously reluctant to adopt.

For companies like Swisher, the accelerated adoption of distributed work significantly widened candidate pools. As Jacinta shared, “Now that we’re allowing people to work remotely, our landscape to recruit from is really much broader. It’s not limited to geography, and we’re not requiring relocation, which is a cost savings for us.”

At JM Search, in our daily work as executive recruiters, we are now seeing the other end of the spectrum. Many companies outside of major markets that returned to a fully in-office culture are struggling to attract and retain top talent. In fact, one survey found that only 3% of white-collar employees want to work in-office full-time. It’s clear that that work location and flexibility will continue to play a significant role in the “war for talent,” regardless of industry or company.  

Greater Focus on Talent Development & Optimization of Existing Teams

During the shifting sands of the pandemic when there was not a clear path forward, business leaders were challenged to come up with new ways to keep employees engaged and business operations moving amid disruption.

For Jacinta, who worked in the struggling hospitality industry during the pandemic, this meant rewriting job descriptions and finding utility players—flexible employees who could take on multiple roles. In many instances – across many different industries – the pandemic ended up challenging different types of workers to stretch their skillsets and take on new responsibilities that have now led to increased abilities and expanded career path opportunities.

This challenging time period also helped paint a clearer picture of which employees and leaders were capable of successfully navigating uncertainty, including using creative thinking to solve complex problems and effectively motivating and inspiring teams to deliver results. In hindsight, the events of 2020 served as a true test of talent, and allowed organizations to assess and make necessary changes to ensure they have the best possible leaders, talent, and teams in place for long-term success.

“Firms have realized the investment that they have to make in their human capital teams,” Kathy Gardner shared. “It’s imperative to success.” This includes prioritizing talent development, career pathing, and making the most of their existing resources and workforce. This can have a tremendous long-term impact on business results, including increased retention and engagement.

A Stronger Emphasis on Connecting Employees to Purpose

Company culture became a vital tool for both pandemic-era and post-pandemic employee engagement. Organizations are paying much greater attention to employee value propositions and ensuring workers see a clear purpose behind stated business goals and objectives. Leaders at Aquamar began to emphasize the “why” behind their work, rather than focusing too heavily on deliverables, to motivate employees.

“There are people who are really motivated by being masters of their craft, and there are people who are really motivated by the team engagement,” Daryl said. “But there’s also a whole group of people who are really motivated by the connection to purpose and are looking for something beyond the P&L.”

For Keurig Dr Pepper, heavily investing in culture was particularly important. The products in the portfolio had Keurig Dr Pepper deemed an essential business in the early stages of the pandemic, which made strong employee retention on the frontline imperative to success.

“We always said the frontline was important, but we didn’t always act like the frontline was important,” Mary Beth said of their pre-pandemic culture. “We really saw a shift in how we were thinking about the rewards, the recognition, the acknowledgment of the day-in-day-out work that our frontline does. That frontline focus has really carried through even now, post-COVID.”

Less Talk & More Action with DEI

Employee resource groups have played a key role in engaging diverse voices and perspectives, while DEI overall is now acknowledged as a critical investment for employee retention.

At Swisher and Keurig Dr Pepper, the development of ERGs was a key strategy for driving meaningful conversations. According to Mary Beth, ERGs continue to provide leaders with opportunities to actively listen and respond. Similarly, Aquamar drove open conversation and inclusion by making clear declarations about where the organization stood about social issues.

At Palladium, which always embraced diversity as part of its DNA, the rise of social justice allowed them to further their commitment to DEI. Kathy said, “Diversity of thought is something that needs to be brought front and center even more now, and it’s proven to have greater outcomes.”

A New Era of Mental Health Discussions & Support in the Workplace

Pre-2020, mental health carried a stigma and was not a widely discussed topic within many organizations. Fast forward to three years later, organizations and workforce leaders are increasingly acknowledging the struggles employees face—both inside and outside of the office – and mental health support is shifting from a nice-to-have to a true business imperative.

As highlighted by Harvard Business Review, the stakes have been raised even higher thanks to a greater awareness of the workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health, as well as heightened urgency around its intersections with DEI. While many employers have begun to invest more to support mental health, employees’ expectations continue to increase – and for many organizations there is a lot of progress to be made in this area to truly create a high-performing, inclusive, engaged culture.   

To Wrap It Up

Successful organizations are undeniably shifting their strategies to focus on the employee experience. Our panelists have deepened their focus on flexibility, purpose, talent development, recognition, and DEI to build supportive, attractive work environments for their employees—talented workers who are more valuable than ever.

You can access the full webinar replay here. If you’re searching for a dynamic leader who can transform your workforce, the JM Search team can help.

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